Woodland creatures, flat, earthy tones, pine trees and ruddy cheeks: it seems like you can’t pick up a record sleeve or turn a page in a magazine at the moment without being confronted by imagery straight out of a folk tale. And a distinctly northern European folk tale at that.
Alex Spiro of London-based small press Nobrow has an idea of why such work abounds currently:
“I think we got to a certain point where many people questioned technology-led illustration work. I suppose it was the nagging suspicion that some of it was only as good as the programmes people were using,” he says. “Illustrators stopped thinking about what the software could do for them and rather started thinking about how they could rewire it to suit their needs. This is not to say that illustrators are any less digital, merely that they are less reliant on it as a driving force for their work.”
Taking things to an extreme level, Spiro says that he knows “many artists who have returned to producing separations, or layers, by hand; these are people who were reared in the digital age and who are very adept at every manner of digital wizardry, but who have consciously and retroactively taught themselves the time-consuming processes that their predecessors were happy to dispense with when the time came. Just as many electro musicians were returning to analogue equipment to differentiate their sound from an otherwise over-saturated and monotonous genre in the early noughties, illustrators seem to have adopted a philosophy in which forming a technical practice that is based on experimentation, in whatever form it could take – analogue or digital – is crucial to their development as artists,” Spiro argues. “It also aids their commercial practice by amplifying their idiosyncrasies and differentiating their product from everything else out there,” he continues.
“Of course, it’s not the illustrators that make trends happen, it’s the brief, it’s the demand,” says Greg Burne of Big Active, the creative studio that also represents a roster of illustrators. “A few years ago people wanted to be slick, but now people want to communicate bespoke, one-off, hand-made sensibilities. The illustration brief buzzword changed overnight from ‘iconic’ to ‘organic’ and you can see this pervade everything, not just illustration.”
Burne is right. Turn on the TV, for example, and the adbreaks are full of wooly-hatted, bearded men and girls in jeans and check shirts skipping around to plinky plonky sing-along folky music. And that’s just the ads for McDonalds. “Now there’s an appreciation for more touchy feely craft stuff,” adds Burne.
While some of us might be getting tired of seeing huge, corporate, multinational money-making machines with dubious ethics trying to persuade us they’re wholesome and ethically cuddle-worthy, the fact that these brands and organisations want to tap into the visual language of folk art-influenced illustration is, obviously, great news for the illustrators (and their agents) whose work fits the bill. One such artist is Sanna Annukka who is represented by Big Active. “Sanna’s definitely one of our most in-demand artists at present,” affirms Burne. “Part of her appeal is the fact that the work suggests wholesomeness. Her work is decorative and this opens it up to be applied to homewares, prints and crafts. However, her work can also convey narrative and so she is often approached by companies wanting to ‘green’ themselves up,” he continues.
But while advertisers may have cynical motivations for tapping into the folk trend, its foremost practitioners are referencing something that has personal significance. “I’m really proud of my Finnish heritage,” says Annukka, who spent her childhood summers in Finland. “Finnish landscapes, nature, wildlife, culture and folklore are huge influences on my work.”
“I grew up reading Finland’s national epic, The Kalevala, a collection of mad songs depicting heroic tales of adventure,” she continues. “I knew from a young age that The Kalevala would be a core theme in my work and I based my collection for Finnish textile/fashion company Marimekko on some of my favourite stories within it. What I like doing as an illustrator is depicting old folklore in a modern, refreshed way. My Marimekko patterns mean people can own colourful vibrant depictions of Finnish folklore in their very own homes. I love that.”
Annukka is not the only young illustrator with roots in genuine folk traditions. Helsinki-based Janine Rewell, represented by Agent Pekka, cites Slavic folk art among her top influences. UK-based illustrator Stuart Kolakovic (repped by Heart), on the other hand, became interested in eastern European folk art because of his ancestry: his grandfather was Serbian, his grandmother Ukrainian. “I’m as interested in European and Russian folklore as much as I am in its aesthetic and I’m currently working on a comic book, Lichen, which is based loosely around Saami reindeer herding culture and its ancient animistic beliefs,” he says. “The way I use flat and limited colour palettes, texture and pattern design, initially inspired by European folk art, has gone on to greatly influence all aspects of my work and not just the obviously ‘folky’ pieces.”
So are clients actually asking for ‘folk’ in their briefs to illustrators? “Not really,” says Burne. “‘Folk’ is still a dirty word – no-one at an ad agency says ‘we want someone folky’. Actually, I’ve yet to hear an expression that sums up this kind of phenomenon succinctly and appropriately. ‘Homespun’ and ‘wholesome’ are what I usually hear.”
They might not mention the f-word, but the illustrators that do the work know when to turn up the folk. “I’d say about half of the commissions I get are from art directors wanting something to do with an eastern European aesthetic or ‘nature’,” says Kolakovic. “It’s romantic – kind of like a grown-up Disney vision of how we should look at and live with nature.”
No doubt the trend wheel will turn again soon, but, for now, it’s all about the folk.